Back in 1975, civic leaders convened at the Deaf Smith County seat of Hereford—about 50 miles southwest of Amarillo, Texas, and halfway between Black and Dawn—to devise a unique event to promote their small cattle-ranching town: an annual All-Girl Rodeo.
That idea quickly grew beyond an all-girl rodeo to a much grander concept: The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
The story may have ended as just a footnote in a dusty history book, had they not roped in a no-task-too-big cowgirl to help ride herd on the idea.
The following year, the board of directors appointed one of its members, 46-year-old spitfire Margaret Formby, as the first executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, a position she would hold until 1995.
Formby, a lifelong cattlewoman and accomplished cowgirl who had been the first “Miss Texas Tech,” was also an English teacher and the news director at country music station KPAN. Formby had accumulated an extensive personal collection of rodeo memorabilia, which would become the cornerstone of the museum’s displays.
At its inception, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame was housed in the basement of the Deaf Smith County Library. In 1982, a Hereford couple donated their 6,000-square- foot mansion to showcase the collection, but even with the grander space, the vision of a world-class attraction languished. Hereford simply wasn’t destined—much less located—to be a tourist destination. “We’d go for stretches, where for days on end, no one would come,” Formby would later tell the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Determined to not let this fledgling project die, Formby journeyed to Fort Worth in 1994 to offer her “baby” up for adoption, so that the brainchild of Hereford’s visionary city leaders could be showered with the attention she knew it deserved. Formby succeeded, and in 1995, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame relocated to Fort Worth.
By 2002, Cowtown’s cowgirl aficionados had ponied up $20 million to open the 33,000-square- foot, Tulsa Deco-style building in Fort Worth’s museum district, where the Museum remains today.
From its humble beginnings more than four decades ago to the present, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame has celebrated women of extraordinary courage who create their own destinies. Now tallying more than 200 women, the honorees comprise working ranch and rodeo cowgirls, but also trailblazing businesswomen such as Enid Justin, founder of the multi-million-dollar Nocona Boot Company; Dales Evans, star of the silver screen; renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe; Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder; and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Included, as well, is posthumous recognition of such legendary American women as Lewis & Clark expedition guide Sacagawea, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Canadian/Minnesotan three-time world champion trick roper Flores LaDue (cofounder of the Calgary Stampede), and Norwegian-born Tillie Baldwin, who performed with Will Rogers’ vaudeville troupe.
Defining the Cowgirl Spirit
Each woman’s story is different yet woven into the rich tapestries of their lives are the common threads of courage, resilience, and grace under fire. On the eve of the most recent induction ceremony, which took place on October 27, 2016, I visited with three past Cowgirl honorees to learn more about each of their special gifts.
1995 honoree Barbara Van Cleve learned her gumption from her father and grandfather. “You can be anything you want to be; just do it!” she recalls them telling her, while growing up on her family’s Montana ranch. “I never really thought of myself as a role model,” she continues, “although I was the youngest dean of women in the U.S. back when I taught English literature and photography at DePaul University.” Photography remained her first love, and when she retired from teaching, she pursued it with singular focus, earning international acclaim for her photos of ranching life. “My creed is a simple one,” she says. “Work hard. Do what you want to do, have the passion for it, and strive to be the best.”
Cathy A. Smith, one of the 2013 honorees, grew up on a South Dakota Sioux reservation and discovered that her calling was to preserve the Native American crafts of bead work and leather tanning, and to use those skills to restore cultural artifacts. In the late ’80s, she’d been quietly toiling away in her Santa Fe shop when in walked … Kevin Costner. You see, he was on the hunt for a technical advisor to help ensure that the costumes for his upcoming film, Dances with Wolves, were historically accurate. Smith’s exacting skills—down to hand-tanning hides with the animal’s brain instead of with chemicals—and brilliant bead work captivated Costner immediately. “You can’t learn historical costume design from books or old movies,” she tells me, “as most of those aren’t correct. You have to go to museums, and study the actual garments.” Smith, who has more than 35 films to her credit, received an Emmy for Excellence in Costume Design for her work on the television miniseries Son of the Morning Star.
“Growing up on the streets didn’t give me much opportunity to interact with nature,” says 2015 honoree Patricia E. Kelly. “But Mr. Fisher, the Jewish grocer in our neighborhood, had a draft horse he’d let me ride, and from the first time I rode, I knew I wanted to be a horsewoman. ” But life had other plans for Kelly, at least for a while: She joined the U.S. Marine Corp and served during the Vietnam era. After settling in Connecticut after the war, she started the non-profit Ebony Horsewomen in 1984, first as a cultural and social enrichment program for women and then growing its mission to include mentoring and teaching local youth. A trained equestrian instructor for nearly four decades, she’s also a certified Master Urban Riding Instructor. “I wanted to be a cowgirl ever since I was a child,” Kelly tells me. “The Marine Corps gave me the tools of pride, honor, and discipline. The Corps gave me tools, and God gave me purpose.”
The Fabulous Four
The most recent inductees were feted at the Will Rogers Round Up Inn on October 27, 2016, at a luncheon kicked off by Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price, dressed in full cowgirl regalia.
First at the podium was Marilyn Williams Harris, who for the past 20 years has co-managed her family’s 100-year-old, historic Sands Ranch in Arizona. Through Harris’ efforts, the Sands Ranch has become a conservation model, as she’s worked to manage the ranch for wildlife, repair damaged ecosystems, and preserve grand Southwest vistas. An avid horsewoman to boot, Williams won the 2008 National Reined Cow Horse Association World Championship and was named the Arizona Cutting Horse Association’s 2012 Rookie of the Year. In addition to these accomplishments, Harris has also raised millions of dollars for numerous non-profits.
Frances Rosenthal Kallison (1908-2004), the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who settled in Fort Worth, spent most of her life in San Antonio where she and her husband ran the Diamond K Ranch & General Store and raised polled Herefords. She cofounded the Texas Jewish Historical Society, and had been nominated for this honor by Hollace Ava Weiner, author of Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work. “Kallison embodied courage, resilience and independence,” says Weiner, “key criteria for this award, and demonstrated the adaptability of Jewish people and their contributions to ranching, commerce, and civic involvement in the Lone Star State and elsewhere.” Her granddaughter, Robi Marisol Ravicz, accepted the award on her behalf, saying, “My grandmother was passionate about her Jewish heritage and her Western roots. This award brings her life full circle in her dedication to, and passion for, all things Texas.”
When 86-year-old Pat North Ommert took the stage in spry style, a murmur of appreciation rippled through the crowd. Flashing her trademark dazzling smile, she recounted some of the highlights of her illustrious career as a skilled rodeo rider and stuntwoman, working alongside Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Ommert toured the world as a trick rider, and earned a contract at Madison Square Garden, where she performed her stunts to sold-out audiences. When Ommert retired from trick riding in 1961, she turned her attention to collaborating with her veterinarian husband on opening California’s first private equine hospital, Los Caballos Farm. But that doesn’t mean she stopped riding. “I still hit the trails every day,” says Ommert. “And along with my daughter and granddaughter, work to preserve California’s horse culture and open trails.”
As a wildlife rehabilitator, Veryl Goodnight developed a compassion for animals that elevates her sculptures to the sublime. She’s produced more than 200 sculptures and 20 monuments over the course of her career, which spans more than four decades in the Western art arena. Undoubtedly her most lauded work is “The Day the Wall Came Down,” which stands outside the Allied Museum in Berlin, with replica castings at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, and at the entrance of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. The massive work depicts five larger-than-life horses leaping over the Berlin Wall. The well-spoken Goodnight explains her developmental path thusly: “Inspired by my love of animals, I spent hours upon hours studying them. At first, I saw only the surface. Then, I realized I needed to know anatomy, the structure of the bones and muscles under the surface. From there, I learned the animal’s individuality, and finally, I came to recognize the creature’s very soul.”
Goodnight continues, “To all of the previous Cowgirl Hall of Fame Honorees, you have provided inspiration to me for years. You have broken barriers; you have made my trail easier. As I join you today, I vow to make the trails of those who follow us easier and easier. Joining your ranks today is the highest honor of my life.”
As I watch and listen to these women, who cut a wide swath through America’s rich race, religious and social-economic strata, I feel as though there’s some shared mitochondrial DNA flowing from each of them into me like an electrical current. It vibrates to my very core: Live life on your own terms and by your personal code of honor, dream big, and never, ever give up.
After all, that’s The Cowgirl Way.